An activity of the Primer Group


A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.






Wholeness Seminar


Some Reflections and Questions regarding
the concept of holism as originally created
by Jan C. Smuts

A contribution to start the discussion (January, 1997)
on the fundamental origins and depth of wholeness and holism

By Heiner Benking.

At this point the writer would like to start the dialogue about the content and background of WHOLENESS and HOLISM and how it was received in the different cultures. It is unpardonable that psychology and holistic medicine cherish the works of an integral thinking SMUTS, while the system sciences and modern Western philosophy seem to want to reinvent the wheel. The author is very much aware about the deep misunderstandings Karl POPPER had about the works of Jan Smuts but also feels it is better that some study and discussion should be conducted about the very roots of the concept of Holism.

We enclose some excerpts to give a glimpse of the works of SMUTS and as a summary of the very wide and rich work of the first but widely unknown holist :

Here are excerpts (chapter summaries) from 'Holism and Evolution' written in 1926 and the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITTANNICA 1927 contribution of SMUTS:

I typed the chapter titles of his Summaries from the book: HOLISM AND
EVOLUTION by JAN C. SMUTS from 1926.

I excerpted the beginning, end and the references from his text for the



Chapter I - The Reform of Fundamental Concepts

Chapter II - The Reformed Concepts of Space and Time

Chapter III - The Reformed Concept of Matter

Chapter IV - The Cell and the Organism

Chapter V - General Concept of Holism

Chapter VI - Some Functions and Categories of Holism

Chapter VII - Mechanism and Holism

Chapter VIII Darwinism and Holism

Chapter IX - Mind as an Organ of Wholes

Chapter X - Personality as a Whole

Chapter XI - Some Functions and Ideals of Personality

Chapter XII - The Holistic Universe

Excerpted from Encyclopedia Brittannica


Holism (from the Greek Holos, whole) is the theory, which makes the existence of "wholes" a fundamental feature of the world. It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as "wholes" and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts. It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour. The so-called parts are in fact not real but largely abstract analytical distinctions, and do not properly or adequately express what has gone to the making of the thing as a whole.

Holism is therefore a viewpoint additional and complementary to that of science, whose keywords are continuity and mechanism. The ideal of science is continuity, and its method is based on the analysis of things into more or less constant elements or parts, the sum of whose actions account for the behaviour of these things. Things, thus become mechanisms of their parts; and the interactions of their invariable parts in a homogeneous time and space according to the rules of mechanics are sufficient to account for all their properties. This mechanistic scheme applies even to living bodies, as their material structures determine the functions which constitute life characters. Mind is similarly, though much more doubtfully, based on physical mechanisms and functions. Life and mind are thus considered as derivative and epiphenomenal to matter.

The validity of this simple scientific scheme of things has been commonly, but never universally, accepted even among scientists. The inferior position it assigns to mind has remained an insuperable difficulty. And many biologists have also viewed its account of life as inadequate, and have supported the plea for vitalism or for life as a real force or factor, additional to those which operate on the physical plane. Finally the scientific scheme has been seriously undermined by the most recent discoveries in physical and mathematical science, which have resolved matter into variable energy, have destroyed the homogeneity of space and time, and have thereby shaken the whole basis of fixed standards and accurate measurements on which the mechanistic scheme is founded. The value of the mechanistic concept for research is not questioned, but it can no longer be considered as a true index of the concrete character of the universe and its contents. Holism is an attempt to explore an alternative scheme which will yet avoid the pitfalls of vitalism.

What are Wholes ?

What is involved in the concept of a whole? In the first place, in so far as a whole is considered as consisting of parts or elements, they cannot be fixed, constant, or unalterable. To be parts in a whole they must be pliant, flexible and mouldable. Their adjustment in a whole implies their Flexibility and adjustability. It must be possible for the part to be different in the whole from what it is outside the whole; and in different wholes it must be different in each case from what it is in its separate state. The atoms of matter, and the electrons and protons of atoms are on this view not constant and identical throughout, either in their isolated states or in the "wholes" of atoms, molecules and compounds which they compose. They are variable, although the limits of variation may be too small for measurement or observation. In so far as physical substances are "wholes", their elements cannot be constant and unalterable, as they must be adjustable to the pattern of these wholes.

In the second place, in so far as the elements or parts cohere and coalesce Into the structure or pattern of a whole, the whole must itself be an active factor or influence among them; otherwise it is impossible to understand how the unity of a new pattern arises from its elements. Whole and parts mutually and reciprocally influence and modify each other; the one is pliant to and moulded by the other; the parts are moulded and adjusted by the whole, just as the whole in turn depends on the cooperation of its parts. The adjustive, directive, controlling influence of the whole is just as real as the whole which the parts play in the make-up of the whole.

2.) Holism and Revolution

3.) Holism and Biology

4.) Holism as Creative Activity

5.) Categories of Holism

6.) Transvaluation in Holism

7.) Holism in Psychology

8.) Holism in Sociology

9.) Is Reality a Whole?

10.) Forms and Monads

11.) Ethics and Metaphysics of Holism

Although the theory of Holism frankly accepts the material basis of the world and recognises the natural order as Idealism cannot, yet it fully justifies the claim of the spirit in the interpretation of the world. The concept of the whole enables us to overcome some of the most difficult and poignant contrasts in life and thought. We are constantly confronted with the opposition between matter and spirit, between the temporal and the eternal, between the phenomenal and the real, Holism shows these opposites as reconciled and harmonised in the whole. It shows whole and parts as aspects of each other; the finite is identified with the infinite, the particular with the universal. Eternity is contained in time, matter is the venture and vehicle of spirit, reality is not a transcendent other-worldly order, but is immanent in the phenomenal. To attain to reality, we need not fly away from appearance; each little centre and whole in the world, however lowly, is a laboratory in which time is transmuted into eternity, the phenomenal into the real. The wondrous truth is everywhere; the plummet let down anywhere will reach to unknown depths; any cross-section in the world of appearance will reveal the very texture of reality. Everywhere the whole, even the least and most insignificant apparently, is the real wonder, the miracle which holes the secrets for which we are groping in thought and conduct. Here is the within which is the beyond. To be a whole and to live in the whole becomes the supreme principle, from which all the highest ethical and spiritual rules (such as the golden rule) follow. And it links these rules with the nature of things, for not only do goodness, love and justice derive from it, but also beauty and truth, which are rooted in the whole and have no meaning apart from it. The whole is in fact both the source and the principle of explanation of all our highest ideals, no less than of the earlier evolutionary structures already discussed.
Principal Authorities

Hans Driesch "The Problem of Individuality" 1914
"Metaphysik der Natur" 1927

J.S. Haldane "Mechanism Life and Personality" 1921

S. Alexander "Space Time and Deity" 1920

Lloyd Morgan "Emergent Evolution" 1923
"Life Mind Spirit" 1926

C.D. Boodin "Cosmic Evolution" 1925

J.C. Smuts "Holism and Evolution" 1926

A. H. Whitehead "Science and the Modern World" 1926

L.T. Hobbome "Development and Process * " 1924

(end of excerpts)

Comments by Heiner Benking

I decided to contribute after reading the article of Willis HARMAN in this seminar and in particular his reference to attributions regarding the genesis of holism to Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilber. I had discussed this with Willis Harman 18 months ago and we had agreed that a group here in Germany will look into some philosophical and historical backgrounds regarding some publications in America. As he passed away before our work was completed I feel it is my duty put forward our findings -- which is not a criticism of HARMAN or WILBER, but an observation how domains absorb or repel sources or lines of thought and some developments and inventions have to be reinvented to make them aware when times and groups are ready for them.

It is ironic that in psychology or medicine Jan C. SMUTS is seen as the father of holism but system sciences somehow has forgotten or neglected him.

French author Jean-Marie ROBINE, in Le Holism de J. C. Smuts ,, questions if SMUTS is not a victim of intellectual apartheid, as the foundation of, for example, the Gestalt therapy of F.S. PERLS is strongly influenced by and based on the works of SMUTS.

Another example: Ken WILBER only gives reference to works about SMUTS published in the 60's (for example in "Eye to Eye" but does not go to the originals; and Erich JANTSCH sees Smuts as the grandfather of holism but does not go to the originals in his texts or references either. Ken Wilber presents in his new book: SEX, ECOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY, Shambala 1995 a map of holarchies adopted from Taylor's emerging geopolitical system levels but does not present a unifying scheme towards mapping holarchies, as Stephen Jay Kline does with his 'hierarchies of constitutions' in 'THE POWERS AND LIMITATIONS OF REDUCTIONISM and SYNOPTISM' - Stanford University, Programme in Science, Technology and Society, Report CF1, February 1996.

'BEYOND REDUCTIONISM', Alpbach Symposium, 1968 The author feels much closer to Paul Weiss and his 'inscribed domains' - than to the oversimplistic and 'symbolic' metaphors like hierarchical trees. Paul Weiss who introduced the term 'systems' in biology in the 20ies, gave the keynote, and with L. von Bertalanffy, Koestler, Smythies and others, gave a memorable talk about life and systems at the1968 Alpbach Symposium, which was called 'BEYOND REDUCTIONISM'. The proceedings including recommendations and discussions are highly recommended! Koestler, Smythies(1969): English original: MACMILLAN – Hutchinson & Co. Publishers - German version: MOLDEN publishers, Vienna.

The author sees a lot of potential in following some of the old questions and problems raised there, but which obviously have fallen into forgetfulness.

Paul Weiss was pointing out in the Alpbach symposium, where a very impressive and interdisciplinary group of system thinkers met to discuss such aspects from all angles, that there is a migration along and across scales. He strongly opposed oversimplifications like Koestler's (symbolic ! tree) hierarchies, as they were not presenting living, dynamic and fluid as he observed in Nature. As this interaction along and across hierarchical scales is actually the working area of integrated ecosystem research and management, we would like not only to point out that some questions are still open, and that the 'forgotten' founding fathers, called by history 'naive' or 'generalists' might prove to be helpful and we have to look into 'old and new thinking'. See also Intesymp symposium Baden-Baden, August 1997 keynote: 'Descartes' Error and Our Fallacy' available from the author. We should at least take the opportunity to look at them with 'new eyes' instead of neglecting them and maintaining the familiar 'one-eye only' glasses (lenses).

But back to the need to share ideas about wholes and connectedness, context and conceptual neighborhoods. The author has done some earlier research on the concepts as Smuts developed them in 1912 in his INQUIRY into the WHOLE, later in HOLISM and EVOLUTION 1926, and later as an entry to Holism in the 1927 ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITTANNICA. It is about how to see a concept as a body of meaning and how we can discuss sections, levels and perspectives in complex multi-scale environments. The author is well aware of the works of Arthur Koestler, much admires his genius and esprit as a writer and has followed up on his works, in particular on holism, holons, and holarchies. Being too young to have experienced the history of the fight against reductionism, he believes with Stephen Kline that the main problems are scientific overclaims and that we have not found out how to go beyond single perspectives to trying a concert of views. Nevertheless the works of SMUTS when looking at them anew today make much sense, especially as SMUTS was trying to bring together the physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere into one design.

It is not clear to the author why the work of SMUTS was somehow neglected in the scientific community. It is obvious that the time - in and between the wars - was most difficult, and apparently biosystemic organic views were already too much for conventional materialistic and reductionistic (only) approaches to swallow.

It is time to review the past and the potential - especially as the metaphors and views still governing our models and thinking fall short of the realities of a sorely needed holistic, organic, ecosystemic approach, and it seems to be high time to bring together again experts from all fields and generalists, like in Alpbach in 1968, to plot the next step in the story of coexisting schemas like: reductionism and holism. Such a hearing, as has been requested nicely in:, by Ivan Havel's ( in this seminar also) might be the needed approach to sharing incompatible viewpoints. For ways to manage such meetings and hold and accept different perspectives see:,, and

The old saying is 'watch your metaphors' - It looks like that the founders of system sciences were very well aware of the limitations of terms and approaches. Today we seem to have bought into over-simplistic pictures, scientific overclaims, and settled only on one higher level of reductionism instead of combining the merits of a spectrum of approaches into one bouquet of incompatible but nicely arranged and complementary aspects. Please see also some of the authors line of thought tending towards embodying and sharing pan-focal, trans-disciplinary, and multi-perspective representations into a meta-paradigm: The contribution: Panorama of Understanding can be found in this seminar at: and the authors homepage:

We would like to invite discussion and further study of the doctoral thesis and publications of Martin H. van MEURS, available in April 1997 in Dutch - English and German translations are in progress. Title: J.C. SMUTS: STAATSMAN, HOLIST, GENERAAL.

Beukes, P. (1991,92,93,94): The Holist, Romantic, Religious Smuts, Human& Rousseau, Cape Town
Beukes, P. (1996): Smuts the Botanist, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town
Hancock, W.K. (1962): Smuts I, The Sanguine Years, 1870-1991, Cambridge
Hancock, W.K. (1968): Smuts II, The Fields of Force, 19919-1950, Cambridge
Kline, Stephen Jay (1996): The powers and Limitations of reductionism and synoptism, Program in Science, Technology and Society, report CF!, Stanford University, February 1996
Koestler, A.,Smythies, J.R. (1969): The Alpbach Symposium 1968 - Beyond reductionism - New perspectives in the life sciences
Roukens de Lange, Aart (1987): Holims and Health in Perspective,
Institute for Futures Research, Stellenboch, In: Odyssey June/July 1987, ISSN 00256-0356
van Meurs, M. (1997): J.C. Smuts - Staatsman, holist, Generaal, Suid- Afikaanse Institut, Amsterdam, ICG -Printing Dordrecht, ISBN 90-74112-13-7 Dutch Version, translation in progress
Jan C. Smuts (1973): Walt Whitman, Detroit
Jan C. Smuts (1973):Holism and Evolution, Westport
Jan C. Smuts (1996):Holism and Evolution, GESTALT JOURNAL PRESS, International Gestalt Therapy Association, Highland, NY

PS: (September 1997) I learned only last week what Arthur Koestler has written somehow as his testimony and summary in his last major book, called: JANUS - A Summing Up (1978). Arthur Koestler died in 1980, in need of the ‘EXIT’.

As I can only, at this point, translate freely from my notes from the German book. I invite, whoever cares, to exchange this ‘free’ excerpts with the original text. The text is from the first paragraph of the chapter ‘The Holarchy’ right in the beginning, in the German edition on page 38:

Smuts created the term ‘Holism’ and wrote and extraordinary book, called: EVOLUTION AND HOLISM which for some time was very well received. In the academic world in never gained ground, because 1.) it was against the spirit of the Times, and 2.) it has, maybe, a more philosophical than an empirical approach, which was not applicable for the test in a laboratory.

This answers some of the questions in the original discussions above and before, but also creates new ones, why do we avoid looking at the sources, why do we outcast and are afraid with our sectarianism of sciences, and how do we find sources when the ‘spirit of the Times’ changes !? I hope I made it very clear that we need many sides and not expel voices and views and fight over meaning and definitions, like we fight over territories.


SHARING FUTURES times, spaces, voices, views, values,... in shared perspective Voice: +49 731 501 -910 FAX -929 Heiner BENKING, PoBox 2060, D- 89010 Ulm, GERMANY

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